Open skies, rolling waves, and winding roads – the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic road trips in the world, and for good reason. People flock from across the U.S. and globe to slide behind the wheel and meander down (or up) the U.S. coast through California, Oregon, and Washington. Driving a Pacific Coast Highway road trip is truly a bucket list experience for many – including me!
I drove the PCH for the first time in 2014; I arranged a Ford Mustang in San Diego as my Pacific Coast Highway car rental, and drove all 1700 miles up to Seattle in about 7 days. Since then, I’ve driven portions of the Pacific Coast Highway many times, in many different vehicles – and I’ve learned a thing or two about the best car to drive on the Pacific Coast Highway.
In this post, I’m going to share my thoughts on the best car for the Pacific Coast Highway, and how to arrange your Pacific Coast Highway car rental to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip unforgettable – but not for your wallet or blood pressure. Read on to discover my tips on choosing the right PCH rental car
In this post, I promote travel to areas that are the traditional lands of many groups of Indigenous and Native American peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in August 2014, and was updated in October 2021.
1. Arrange a One-Way Car Rental
Unless you are driving your own vehicle (which would be odd, considering you ended up on my article about car rentals), I recommend arranging your Pacific Coast highway car rental one way. This means that you will pick it up at one end of the PCH (such as Seattle or San Diego) and drop it off at the other end (or the various start/endpoints you choose along the way).
Almost all car rental agencies offer one-way rentals (you usually have to tick a box that says something like “Return to a different location” to get a second place to enter your drop-off spot), but my two favorites are Fox Rent-A-Car and Sixt; I’ve rented from both of them, including for my own PCH road trip. No matter which company you choose, a Pacific Coast Highway one-way car rental will save you lots of time returning the car at the opposite end of the PCH from where you picked it up.
2. Don’t Rent in Los Angeles
If you are starting your PCH road trip in Southern California and heading northbound, do not – I repeat do not – rent or return your car at LAX. The cost of your rental car can be up to $200 more expensive if you arrange it through LAX, especially when you’re only renting for a one-way trip.
Instead, try other airports in the area. In San Diego or Long Beach, rental companies are more likely to compete for customers with lower prices. In the end, that will help you get a better deal (which is good, since gas prices on the West Coast will definitely eat up the difference!).
3. Opt for a Car with a Lower Center of Gravity
When it comes time to select your PCH car rental, opt for a vehicle that has a low center of gravity. the lower center of gravity, the better your driving experience will be.
You do not want an SUV with any chance of rolling. Even in a low car, you’re going to have to slow down a lot to make the hairpin turns. In a bigger car, you’re going to miss out on half of the thrill of driving the PCH.
For my trip, a Ford Mustang was a great choice because while I would have bottomed out on a speed bump, there aren’t any speed bumps on the PCH – just glorious winding roads that my car hugged like a dream.
5. Skip the Soft-Top/Convertible
I thought I was being really cool renting a Mustang Convertible to drive up the coast. I thought of blue skies and blowing wind and sexy windswept hair.
Instead, I was always putting the top up and down. Sometimes the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in 10 minutes. Other times I got sunburned and couldn’t bear it. As long as your car has windows you can roll down, that’s enough to enjoy the experience without the extra charge for a luxury or exotic rental car for the Pacific Coast Highway.
6. Go Automatic, Not Manual
Speaking of those mountains and turns, you don’t want to be constantly shifting up and down, up and down…
As an owner of manual transmission cars, I can tell you that your legs will get really tired if you choose a manual transmission for the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead, opt for the ease of an automatic when choosing your Pacific Coast Highway car rental. You’ll be more comfortable, and the car will get less wear and tear.
Plus, you’ll be able to accelerate more quickly when it’s safe to, or when you’re passing someone!
6. Ensure You’ll Have Music
This tip isn’t strictly about choosing the best car for the Pacific Coast Highway, but it’s a feature/part of the experience to keep in mind.
Long stretches of the PCH have no radio or cell service. Ensure you’re all set by either confirming your car has Apple Play, a phone jack (and you’ve got playlists loaded), or buying an AM/FM transmitter for your phone. Make sure you’ve downloaded a few Spotify playlists or loaded an audiobook into iTunes, and you’re set.!
Additionally, make sure you have a way to stay charged – cigarette lighter ports are now perfect for USB charging! On a 7 hour day, you won’t want to spend it listening to static interspersed with country music and NPR (can you tell I didn’t plan ahead on this one?).
7. Bring a Navigator and/or Photographer
This isn’t so much related to the car, but having a companion will make your Pacific Coast Highway road trip a lot more enjoyable!
While the winding roads will keep you from falling asleep when you’re alone, someone with a map and camera in hand can grab snaps of all the things you miss while driving, as well as point out important rest areas/sight-seeing opportunities along the way. Also, they’ll also have the power to pick the music, so make sure they’re really awesome before letting them ride shotgun!
Have other questions about picking the best Pacific Coast Highway car rental? Let me know in the comments!